Steve Morris wants to know "What's so funny about funny books?" So each week in Killing Jokes he'll be examining humor in comics, from titles that are meant to be funny to jokes inserted in otherwise completely serious books.
Here’s a thing which has always niggled away at me, chewed on my brain like a fly which has somehow flown through my ear and started to chew on my brain – like we all know flies want to but have never previously managed before. Batman is a dark crusader, who wears a costume and cape but spray paints the whole thing black. He lurks in shadows and sometimes abandoned dumpsters, and he dispenses vigilante justice upon the grotesque villains of Gotham City. But during the daytime, he is Bruce Wayne, an orphaned billionaire who lives a playboy lifestyle with models hanging off his arms and a constant interest in finding new extreme sports to participate in. The persona means nobody ever guesses that Bruce is Batman and Batman is Bruce, the bruises he takes playing sport cover the bruises he takes fighting criminals, and the massive expenditures on capes and spray paint are hidden behind the massive expenditure on stock, mansions and fancy boats.
That bit I’m clear on. It stands to reason. Batman is one of two superheroes (the other being Superman) whose civilian identity is actually their secret identity. It’s not a case of Bruce acting like Batman – it’s Batman who is acting like Bruce. Which means Batman takes those models hot-tubbing, and Batman who goes hang-gliding with rocket boosters, and Batman who cracks all those witty jokes and charms —
Wait a second. Batman? Charming? I can understand Batman being an expert at every form of martial arts. I can even come to terms with Batman being able to withstand a simultaneous gunshot wound/heart attack. Bursting out of a buried coffin he was locked inside? Sure. But funny and charming? How does Batman ever manage to achieve that?
This is the one thing, which barely any writer ever touches upon. Frank Miller skips the playboy angle almost entirely and has Bruce brooding in shadows and staring at bats all the time. Grant Morrison taps the idea on the head a few times before going off into mindfuckery. Writers like Peter Milligan, Scott Snyder and Greg Rucka have all shied away from this aspect of The Dark Knight. Yet it’s an important thing. This is one half of his identity, after all – and if anybody is aware of the importance of maintaining a two-faced life, it’s Batman. So where does the sense of humour come from? It’s rare for us to see it come out while he’s dressed in the Batman costume, when he typically sticks to business. It’s out-of-character for Batman to be even a little bit sardonic, which means most writers tend to stick him with a ‘funny’ character like Nightwing or Green Lantern to offer a light-and-shade comparison. Yet if Bruce Wayne is funny and charming and witty and fun and light-hearted that has to come from somewhere inside Batman.
The writer I left off that quick checklist is also the one writer who seems to have noticed this. Jeph Loeb recognises immediately that there was the disparity between Bruce Wayne’s silliness and Batman’s darkness. His character-defining stories (I’m referring to The Long Halloween and Dark Victory; not Hush) with the two personas are damned quick to point out that Batman is nowhere near funny enough to keep the Bruce Wayne persona going. Dark Victory, in particular, could be claimed to be entirely about this idea. In the story, Batman grows darker and darker, and that darkness creeps into Bruce Wayne and results in him isolating several key figures in his civilian life. It starts with Selina Kyle – Catwoman – and ends with Batman encountering and rescuing Dick Grayson. The Selina section of the story is the most interesting one.
In it, Bruce’s inability to turn up and show Selina a good time leads to her growing bored with him and ditching his Dark Knight’s ass. The better Batman gets at crouching on rooftops, the worse he gets at being a normal, funny human being. And it harms his reputation, which puts his identity at risk. It’s only the intervention of Dick Grayson which pushes him back into ‘regular human being’ territory once more, although that’s still highly debatable – look at the current Court of Owls storyline to see how well Batman is handling that friendship nowadays. One of the plot points Grant Morrison started off with and then forgot about during his recent run was the idea that Bruce Wayne forgot how to be himself: Alfred had to try and set him back into a life of womanising and socialising in order to keep the Wayne reputation strong. It’s an interesting idea because Batman is so serious all the time, and everybody else in his life has to be extra-positive to make up for it, for example Nightwing, but also Alfred, Jim Gordon, and Oracle. If you hang around with Batman, you’re going to go insane pretty quickly from all the seriousness.
Which brings me, of course, to a single question. Why So Serious?
The Joker has been a consistent influence on Batman ever since his first appearance. The Clown Prince of Crime represents surrealism at its most twisted and evil. Even in the first, more child-friendly Joker stories we still see Batman perform an abrupt moral swerve to make sure he’s nothing like the green-haired villain. Several stories are pinned down by the idea that Batman and the Joker are more alike than either wants to admit. But I’m pitching the idea that Batman is so set against this that he’s now begun to completely forsake humor in order to keep himself differentiated from Joker. Much like anyone else in Gotham City, too much time amongst the madness has now put a kind of craziness into Batman’s head too. That’s why he can’t keep the Bruce Wayne persona going, and why so many writers give up even trying to maintain the façade. Whereas Daredevil has recently begun to toss away the grittiness and try to clean up his image, Batman is now more sunk into misery than ever.
So, hey, Batman may keep Gotham safe for people. But it comes at the cost of his own good humor. It’s fine for Batman to be Batman. But how much longer can DC maintain the idea that Batman can also be Bruce Wayne?
Steve Morris is the head and indeed only writer for
Comics Vanguard, the internet’s 139th most-favourite comic-book website. You can find him on Twitter at @stevewmorris, where he unleashes might on a regular basis. His favourite Marvel character is Darkstar, while his favourite DC character is, also, Darkstar. I'm on Team X-Men, you guys.